There are many forms of treatment, but this organization uses the canvas as its main tool.
By Connie Aitcheson
Sometimes it’s hard to speak about pain. David Leon knows all too well. He found a form of therapy, using art as a way to help rethink what it means to be mentally ill and as a way to make talking about mental illness easier.
At the Painted Brain, an organization in Los Angeles, art is the tool used to discuss mental illness by bringing together individuals with multiple disorders. The group doesn’t provide therapy but considers itself an adjunct to traditional forms of treatment. It does so by using particular art exercises to encourage participants to talk through their challenges or victories.
The idea for the Painted Brain started in 2004 when Leon, founder, and director, worked as a therapist at the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in Los Angeles. He oversaw young people recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, among other ailments. He found treating his patients for their illnesses; they weren’t in a community with each other. “Mental illness is something that’s really isolating, and it makes people avoid each other,” says Leon. “So having an artistic medium is sort of a safer way to communicate. It creates the space for people to be around each other without having to talk all the time. So it’s not therapy. It’s therapeutic—in the sense that it creates a supportive environment around a specific activity.”
Leon wants to change the perception that people have about words like mental illness, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. One Painted Brain participant, Billy Douglas, found the group to be a safe place that made him comfortable. When he got there, he was recovering from heroin addiction. He started using drugs at age 15 after being subscribed morphine and codeine to treat his migraine with aura headaches. He’d vomit and go blind before the headaches began. Then at 33, he started shooting heroin, and the headaches stopped. He spent the next 20 years addicted to the drug. “When I got here, what I couldn’t help noticing was that everybody helped one another recover by sharing their own experiences and growth recovery together,” he says. “It inspired me to do the writing groups, and in no time at all, I’d taken over the online newspaper.”
Before writing, Douglas spent years as a rock singer, living in New York and London, but the singing only masked his drug use. Being on stage and playing was a form of medicine because when he was playing, he wasn’t drugging. But over time, once he left the stage, his life kept falling apart. It was a vicious cycle that kept repeating itself. Douglas says it wasn’t until his first wife of 20 years died in his arms that he stopped using. That pain was something that triggered desperation to get better. Douglas’ wife had used heroine too and died because of medical complications arising from it. “The psychiatrist I was working with at the time said that rather than suffering PTSD, she called it Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome. She said that I used the traumatizing event as an opportunity to find meaning and purpose in everything,” he says.
Leon, who is a licensed clinical social worker, is also a classical musician, having played the bass for almost 20 years. The Painted Brain has also become a sort of haven for him. He has found friends in the people there, and it has helped him deal with his struggles with depression. “I’ve been really close friends with some of the leadership team in our project,” he says. “We’re a group of people that all believe in something together, which is really amazing for me. “
Three days a week the group offers a range of activities from coloring to stenciling and poetry. The group can get up to 60 people participating throughout a month. The art is shown on its website, newsletter or magazine. Once a year they rent out an art gallery or music venue in Los Angeles and have a jam session featuring the displayed work. The jam sessions allow members to feel free and feel good about expressing themselves. It’s also become a form of therapy for Leon. Being around a group of people who are in the same mindset helps, he says. He doesn’t feel alone because he can talk about anything on his mind knowing the other person understands his condition. “When I struggle with depression myself it’s always been around sort of purpose or hope or feeling that nothing matters,” Leon says, “and so having something that I believe in, even if it’s super hard, sometimes that keeps me going.”